On February 13, 1845, the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association forced the state of Massachusetts to hold hearings on reducing the work day in the state’s textile mills to 10 hours a day. The LFLRA had collected 2000 signatures to put pressure on the textile mill owners and state to improve the conditions in the factories. While the ability to interest state politicians in the conditions of workers was a success of sorts, not only did the workers fail to win, but this is a transitional moment in an industry that would soon replace these women with workers who had access to far less power to protest the conditions of their work, something that continues apparel companies have aimed for ever since.
Samuel Slater brought the first modern factories into the United States in the 1790s. These were largely lauded by most commentators, but they also worried Americans who feared the nation’s nice towns would become the pestilent hellholes of English cities since the Industrial Revolution began there earlier in the 18th century. Some owners were conscious enough about these problems that they created the model town of Lowell, Massachusetts to prove that one could operate a factory using respectable labor. Lowell employers recruited young farm women from around New England to come work in the factories, have a bit of an adventure, and live in a respectable fashion. The closely watched “Lowell Mill Girls” lived in dormitories under the watchful eyes of older women and attended talks by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and other early 19th century intellectuals. They produced their own magazines, took classes, and in the eyes of the factory owners, prepared themselves nicely for marriage while producing profit for their employer.
The Lowell Offering, December 1845
These women also labored in very unpleasant conditions. The factories were hot and humid, necessary to keep the cotton fibers workable and reduce fires. Enormous glass windows allowed sun to pour in on the hottest days of the year. The machines were shockingly loud in a way that’s difficult to imagine for most modern Americans who do not work in factories. They worked 12 or 14 hour days, six days a week. These were young farm women used to work, so it wasn’t the strenuous nature of the labor that bothered them, but being locked up in that factory tending those machines minute after minute, day after day, month and month. Historians have timed the beginning of working-class Americans seeing the environment as something romantic to these early textile factory workers, for whom nature became something to escape to rather than tame.
Rather quickly, the young women moved from intellectual pursuits during their (limited) free time to political organizing. The women began demanding better conditions in the factories and since they came from respectable families, ignoring them was a challenge for the owners. To make it worse, the companies began reducing wages. In 1836, they went on strike, one of the nation’s first organized walkouts. One of the strikers was Harriet Hanson Robinson. She remembered,
Cutting down the wages was not their only grievance, nor the only cause of this strike. Hitherto the corporations had paid twenty—five cents a week towards the board of each operative, and now it was their purpose to have the girls pay the sum; and this, in addition to the cut in the wages, would make a difference of at least one dollar a week. It was estimated that as many as twelve or fifteen hundred girls turned out, and walked in procession through the streets. They had neither flags nor music, but sang songs, a favorite (but rather inappropriate) one being a parody on “I won’t be a nun. ”
“Oh! isn’t it a pity, such a pretty girl as I-
Should be sent to the factory to pine away and die?
Oh ! I cannot be a slave,
I will not be a slave,
For I’m so fond of liberty
That I cannot be a slave.”
My own recollection of this first strike (or “turn out” as it was called) is very vivid. I worked in a lower room, where I had heard the proposed strike fully, if not vehemently, discussed; I had been an ardent listener to what was said against this attempt at “oppression” on the part of the corporation, and naturally I took sides with the strikers. When the day came on which the girls were to turn out, those in the upper rooms started first, and so many of them left that our mill was at once shut down. Then, when the girls in my room stood irresolute, uncertain what to do, asking each other, “Would you? ” or “Shall we turn out?” and not one of them 1laving the courage to lead off, I, who began to think they would not go out, after all their talk, became impatient, and started on ahead, saying, with childish bravado, “I don’t care what you do, I am going to turn out, whether any one else does or not;‘’ and I marched out, and was followed by the others.
As I looked back at the long line that followed me, I was more proud than I have ever been since at any success I may have achieved, and more proud than I shall ever be again until my own beloved State gives to its women citizens the right of suffrage.
Constitution of the Lowell Factory Girls Association, 1836
They lost but continued fighting. In 1835, Sarah Bagley, age 28, began work in the mills. She quickly became politically aware and started working to reform the conditions. She helped found the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association in 1844 and led the campaign for the hearings, gathering many of the signatures and organizing her fellow workers. When the hearings were held, Bagley testified, “The chief evil, so far as health is concerned, is the shortness of time allowed for meals. The next evil is the length of time employed.” Basically, the owners were trying to turn the women into machines. But in 1846, the Massachusetts legislature voted to reject the workers’ demands, part of a larger move in early 19th century New England to create a pro-corporate legal agenda smoothing the way for the growth of business over the concerns of workers and citizens. However, the owners did agree to reduce the hours to 11 a day in 1853 as pressure continued.
The response of the factory owners to this agitation was to switch the labor force. The potato famine in Ireland meant 780,000 new immigrants to the U.S. from that island in the 1840s alone, with another 914, 000 following in the 1850s. These workers were in no condition to turn down hard industrial labor; the opportunity for that was what was many hope awaited them in the United States. It’s possible that the Lowell experiment never really had much chance of working, given the lack of government-mandated employment standards and an ever more competitive market with factories seeking to undercut each other. But eliminating what we can call a privileged labor class–workers with options and access to political levers–proved incredibly profitable for the textile industry.
Mill complex of the Merrimack Company, Lowell, circa 1850
Thus began the history of the textile industry looking for the most vulnerable and impoverished labor to exploit. Eventually, the Irish too would demand better lives. Jews and Italians would be next, then corporations would discover the glories of capital mobility. They moved their factories to southern Appalachia beginning in the early 20th century, then to Mexico in the 1960s, and then to Taiwan, China, and Bangladesh in a never ending global search for workers desperate enough to accept the risk of dying in fires or having their factories collapse on top of them.
In 1846, Sarah Bagley quit her job in the mill and became the nation’s first female telegraph operator.
This is the 92nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.